In an event that quickly made national headlines, Will Smith, a popular former New Orleans Saints player, was fatally shot late Saturday night following a three-car fender-bender in the Lower Garden District.
Smith, 34, was pronounced dead at the scene, near Sophie Wright Place and Felicity Street.
Smith’s wife, Racquel, 33, was hit twice in the right leg by gunfire. She was taken to a hospital and treated for what police said were not life-threatening injuries.
The alleged shooter did not flee after the so-called “road rage” incident, which occurred about 11:30 p.m., police said. Instead, Cardell Hayes, 28, whose vehicle had rear-ended Smith’s SUV before the shooting, stayed on the scene until officers arrived, four minutes after the first 911 call about shots fired.
Police also questioned Hayes’ passenger, Kevin O’Neal, who was, like Hayes, a standout football player when they played together at Warren Easton Senior High School a decade ago.
Hayes was booked on a count of second-degree murder Sunday morning. At his arraignment in court later in the day, Magistrate Commissioner Brigid Collins set his bail at $1 million.
Police said in a warrant that Smith was shot in the back and the right torso.
While Hayes’ attorney, John Fuller, made no claim of self-defense in Magistrate Court, he hinted at the strategy afterward, saying that his client was “not the aggressor.”
“My client is claiming that he’s not guilty and that’s what he intends to show,” Fuller said outside the courtroom.
When asked if Hayes and Smith knew each other before Sunday, Fuller said they did not.
Police said Smith was driving on Sophie Wright Place when his silver Mercedes G63 SUV was struck from behind by Hayes’ orange Hummer H2. The collision caused the Mercedes to strike the rear of a dark Chevrolet Impala in which were two people described as acquaintances of Smith.
Police said that, after Smith and Hayes got out of their vehicles and exchanged words, Hayes drew a handgun and shot Smith multiple times.
Fuller outlined a different version of the night’s events that he said began with an earlier incident, a hit-and-run involving Hayes’ vehicle in which the other driver sped off.
Fuller refused to say whose car had first hit Hayes’ Hummer, but he said the collision at Sophie Wright Place happened when Hayes was in pursuit of the license plate number of the hit-and-run driver.
Fuller also called for toxicology tests for all those involved. “I know there were parties that were intoxicated or were under the influence of some kind of mind-altering substance, based on appearance,” he said.
A few hours earlier, at a Sunday afternoon news conference, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said detectives had not yet nailed down a motive or determined whether Hayes and Smith knew each other.
While Hayes’ gun — which may or may not have been legally owned, Harrison said — was the only weapon confiscated at the scene, police impounded the three vehicles involved and were combing through them for evidence and clues about what unfolded Saturday night.
The shooting came after the Smiths spent a long day enjoying New Orleans. Instagram photos posted by Smith and friends showed how the couple had spent the day, listening to music at the French Quarter Festival and eating sushi at the Sake Café with a group of friends that included another popular former Saints player, Pierre Thomas.
Hours before his death, the couple had squeezed together for a selfie from French Quarter Fest above a caption reading, “Having a blast.”
Other patrons in the Sake Café that night described the group as being in good spirits and lingering over dinner for a few hours.
Early Sunday morning, some began questioning whether the shooting was more complicated than a case of road rage.
Some suggested the roots dated back to December 2005, when Hayes’ mentally ill father, Anthony Hayes, 38, was pepper-sprayed and then killed by nine shots that came from a group of NOPD officers — including Billy Ceravolo, one of Smith’s dining companions Saturday night.
Smith, who had been part of a national championship team while at Ohio State, was drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2004 NFL draft and played with them for 10 seasons.
ESPN staff writer Mike Triplett mourned Smith on Sunday as one of the team’s “underrated pillars.” Smith was especially known as a pass-rusher and led the team in quarterback sacks for four of the five seasons from 2005 to 2009.
Smith’s 67.5 sacks with the Saints are fourth in team history, behind Rickey Jackson (115), Wayne Martin (82.5) and Pat Swilling (76.5).
Smith earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2006, when he helped the Saints reach their first NFC title game, a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. In the 2009 season, Smith and Thomas were key members of the team that won the franchise’s Super Bowl.
Though a formal announcement had not been made, Smith was elected to the Saints Hall of Fame last month, his first year of eligibility, ESPN reported.
But in 2013, Smith tore a knee ligament in an exhibition game at Houston and never played again. He spent some preseason time with the New England Patriots the following year but was released before the regular season began.
The Smiths have three young children: two sons and a daughter, William, Wynter and Lisa.
“A senseless and tragic loss,” Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said in a statement early Sunday.
Saints coach Sean Payton echoed Bensel, tweeting a message that began, “Heavy hearts” and ended with “Pray for (Smith’s) wife’s recovery and their children.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu also expressed his prayers for the family. “Traffic accidents should not lead to someone losing their life,” the mayor said in a written statement. “The senseless acts of violence have to stop.”
Smith’s publicist released a statement Sunday expressing thanks for the public support and prayers. “We ask that you continue to respect the family’s privacy as they grieve the loss of a devoted husband, father and friend,” the statement said.
Reports about Hayes were mixed Sunday. Some described him as an easygoing guy nicknamed “Bear” for his large stature.
Others, including former New Orleans prep star Tyrann Mathieu, described him in less complimentary ways. “I know that dude,” tweeted Mathieu, who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals. “Never knew he’d grow up to be a coward, though. May you get what you deserve, coward.”
Hayes has a short criminal record. In 2014, he pleaded guilty as a first-time offender to illegal carrying of a weapon as well as possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced to six months’ probation.
On Sunday, Hayes’ mother declined to comment when reached at her New Orleans East home. O’Neal’s sister also said her family had no comment at this time.
State business records show that Hayes co-owned a towing company on Read Boulevard.
On Sunday, Rubin Johnson, 63, tinkered with a car inside the company’s lot. He’d heard about Smith’s shooting, he said. But he was still shocked to hear that the man believed to be responsible was the “joyful” Hayes he knew, who bred small dogs and drove a rust-red Hummer, apparently the same one police said he was driving when he shot Smith.
“That don’t sound like him. I’ve never known him to be hot-headed,” Johnson said. “I ain’t ever seen him in that frame of mind.”
Katy Reckdahl and Nick Underhill contributed to this story.